Instead of Valentine’s Day, Why Not Celebrate The Pagan Holiday That It’s A Cover For?

A couple of years ago, I got invited to a “single ladies outing” on Valentine’s Day, which sounded good until said single ladies informed me that we’d all be getting together for an evening viewing of the romantic moving picture “Dear John.”

I declined.

There is no worse way to spend Valentine’s Day than crying over a second-rate version of “The Notebook” alongside other single women in a theatre full of couples. Valentine’s Day isn’t fun for single people, but there’s no need to make it worse by doing things like this.

I asked three single men what they do on Valentine’s Day if they don’t have a date, and they said they either go out to prey on lonely women at bars, or play with their Xboxes. Seems reasonable.

Some people base their stance on Valentine’s Day on their relationship status. I do not. I’ve come to enjoy the day for its chocolate offerings, and as a chance to throw shade on those canoodlers who put their love on display on park benches and at busy coffee shops; mostly though, while I am fond of love and romance, I dislike February 14th.

My disdain for Valentine’s Day started in the Second Grade, when, being the new girl at school and not privy to the ways of the Valentine’s Day card game, I arrived to class on February 14th with Mickey and Minnie “Be Mine” cards for everyone. We had all made little red paper heart cardholders and taped them to our desks the day before. As I went around delivering my cards, a pretty blonde girl named Lindsey I desperately wanted to look like and be friends with said, “You brought a card for everyone?” I found the envelope with Lindsey written on it and handed it to her. “Yes, here you go!” I said. She laughed and turned to her cool friends, proclaiming: “Carla loves Nathan!” Nathan was the dirty-faced booger eater who made honking noises during prayer time that I had just delivered a card to.

The world turned very dark the day I learned about the Valentine’s Day card hierarchy. These little monsters only gave cards to certain people, and they selected different cards based on whether the recipient was a friend, acquaintance, or crush. At the end of the day, everyone counted their cards, and the kids with the most were the Valentine’s Day winners. The kids who received the least cards either cried, pretended not to care, or did as I did and drew pink hearts being pierced by blood dripping daggers.

I got four cards that day. One was from my teacher, one from my friend Mary, one from Soon, who was also new to the school, and my last card was from Nathan, the booger face. He had made it for me out of black construction paper, glue, and white out after I gave him mine, and now we were officially “dating,” which meant he pulled my hair a lot and pushed me off the tall slide on the playground at recess.

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I’m my own Valentine, ok?

In the years that followed, the teachers adopted a rule that you either brought a card everyone in your class, or no one at all. I’d like to think that I helped instigate this change, but I did not. Valentine’s Day sucked for most of us. Imagine if your entire office had to bring everyone a Valentine’s Day card? It would be a brilliant reenactment of elementary school politics complete with the dude who totally forgot to buy cards and scrambles to make his out of used computer paper and highlighters.

I did some V-Day reconnaissance, because despite what you may have heard, Saint Valentine is not exactly a sweet, rosy-cheeked cherub with magical arrows.

Depending on who you talk to, St. Valentine was either a Roman priest practicing in the Eternal City, or a bishop in Umbria. He either got in trouble for performing Christian marriages, or for healing people while serving Jesus. Either way, Valentine ended up in a Roman prison circa 270, which wasn’t the best place for a Christian to be at that time. Emperor Claudius II was said to have taken a liking to the charming Valentine, but Claudius’s affection for V waned when the smooth talking priest tried to push his Jesus agenda on the pagan Emperor. Love might conquer all, but had little effect on Claudius. Valentine was soon bludgeoned and beheaded.

The patron saint of love has an exceedingly vague history, stacked with contractions. Seems about right.

So little is known about the details of St. Valentine’s life that it is widely rumored he was chosen by the Catholic Church for his relative anonymity to cast a Christian shadow over the Pagan holiday Lupercalia. Here’s were things get a bit more exciting, because wolves. This festival was celebrated from February 13th to the 15th each year as a way to ward off evil spirits and purify Rome. It also honored the she-wolf, who, according to Roman lore, suckled Romulus and Remus when they were wee abandoned babies. Romulus would go on to kill his brother and found Rome.

St. Valentine’s Day, celebrated on February 14th each year, under the guise of love and hearts and cherubs and romance, is actually the Catholic Church masking a much cooler holiday that featured feasting and used a wolf for a mascot. If you’re into folklore, or 80s animal t-shirts, or the film Moonstruck, a wolf says more much about passion and love than a curly-haired man in a diaper.

There’s a town in Italy’s Abruzzo region called San Valentino. You might think that San Valentino would be a town brimming with romance, a little love settlement in a country that lives for romance, but you would be wrong, because it’s basically the opposite of that. Every year, San Valentino hosts a parade called Festa dei Cornuti (the Festival of the Cuckolds), which honors, or mocks, men with adulterous wives by parading them through the streets.

As you know, despite this town, and St. Valentine’s sketchy past, Feb 14th has become a celebration of love.

Fine. Celebrate love on your made-up holiday.

BUT. Shouldn’t every day be a celebration of love? Not just romantic love, but love in general? You can’t just go around being cranky, stealing dogs, yelling at baristas, and kicking the backs of people’s chairs at movies, and then go buy your girl diamonds on Valentine’s Day like you’re Saint V’s gift to humanity.

I have nothing against the idea of celebrating love, and I like to think I do so in the way I live my life, day-to-day, so there’s no need for egregious gestures to make up for a year’s worth of ass-faced behavior come February 14th.

This year, instead of Valentine’s Day, I will be celebrating the Pagan wolf holiday Lupercalia. I won’t be sacrificing goats and dogs, but I will be warding off evil spirits and purifying my soul by eating a lot, praying to pagan gods, and drinking enough wine to happily howl at the moon.

Honor Valentine’s Day if you must. Go ahead and hand your wife flowers. Give your husband some chocolate, but also write your mom a letter and tell her why you love her. Call your dad to wish him a lovely day because you were thinking of him. Kiss your grandma if you can. Be extra nice to strangers. Hug a damn dog.

Whether you are single or not, make the day about loving everyone, including yourself.

If I had to do second grade again, I’d do it just the same. Cards for everybody.

Reminiscing about Roma

I was thinking today about  how I’ve all but abandoned this blog since moving back from Rome. Sure, Rome was a profound and unique experience for me, but it can’t stop there, right? Life can be profound and interesting elsewhere and I’m going to try to bring you profound and interesting things and keep this blog up better. Maybe I’ve been hesitant to blog because I know that nowhere can compete with Italy, at least for me.

In Rome, the beauty was in the buildings, the people, the trees, the air. You’re spoiled by it and haunted by it and most of all, mesmerized by it. I sometimes joke with people that living in Italy ruined me for life. All jokes are half true, you know? The experience of living in a place where Disney princess fairy dust floats through the air is indeed mind altering. In my old apartment in Trastevere, which is one of Rome’s oldest and illest areas, I’d work sitting by an open window. Everyday, like clockwork, the smell of fresh baked bread and the most delicious candy you can imagine would waft in on a gentle breeze. I’d look up at the little angel statue carved into the building across the street and the groups of ivy crawling up the wall beside her, and then I’d look down at those charming, uneven cobblestone streets and shake my head. how is this real?

I’m fully aware that Italy has more problems than not. Especially now. What I’m referring to has nothing to do with national debt crisis, or the backwards politics, or the illogical bureaucracy or the bunga bunga bullshit. It’s more the fabric of a culture that was built around living for pleasure. Once you’ve experienced living in a place where they want to enjoy everything they see, taste, smell and touch, it’s hard to come back to concrete sidewalks and frothy, burnt cappuccinos. 

It’s also hard to compete with the pizza. Pizza is the best thing Italians ever invented, in my opinion, and I do enjoy it in all of its forms. But I’ve actually been thinking about Italian pizza all day. The thin crust, the simple punchy tomato sauce, the mozzarella. I’m officially salivating. I will return to Italy one day and the first thing I’m doing is getting myself a pizza. 

Pizza Margherita, love of my life

Speaking of beauty and enjoying life, I just witnessed two construction workers have an uncontrollable giggle fit in my back alley. It was pretty beautiful. 

Roma

When I first moved to the city, Rome seemed like a feral she-beast waiting to rock me, rob me and rape me, but I gave her time, and with time, she opened me up to her, and in turn, she opened up to me.

Perhaps Roma is the ultimate symbol of a woman. She’s strong but feminine, beautiful but slightly wicked, lovely and sensitive but tougher than the rest. Although she’s been conquered, sacked, burned down and passed around by emperors, kings and dictators, she’s never really belonged to anyone.

Like the winding river Tiber that runs through her middle, she’s water. You can feel her with your hands and she’ll leave you wet if you touch her, but try to hold on to her and she’ll pass through you – leaving you changed, touched, loved – but leaving you, all the same.

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From this Gutter, we see the Stars

To say that the traffic in Rome is chaotic would be an understatement. It’s Vespas weaving in and out of messy lines of cars, riders scraping their knees on the sides of buses as they squeeze by; it’s old women not stopping at red lights—not because they couldn’t see the light—because they saw a chance to go; it’s honking, yelling, arm waving craziness.

And so, Roman or not, Italian or not, if you come to Rome, you must acquire certain survival skills, if only to successfully cross the road.

A little puppy named Blackie knows this all too well. At two months old, she comes when she’s called, sits when she’s instructed to, and she waits patiently (and with aching cuteness) when her owner steps inside a bar to punch back an espresso.

Following her owner, and with no leash on, Blackie cautiously navigates through pedestrians and traffic. She looks up at her red pants wearing guide as they cross the street, her clumsy little puppy paws swiftly hitting the pavement behind him. She waits patiently by his side when he stops to chat with someone on the street.

He’s stern with her, but loving, bending down for a cuddle as they wait to cross the road again, and as he does, she becomes the 2-month-old puppy she is, jumping onto his lap, licking his face and getting his red pants all muddy while he laughs. Blackie knows that she’s lucky to have such a great Roman tour guide.

For the rest of us, though, Rome is an ancient urban jungle without a kind navigator leading the way. The city will open her loving arms to you, but you’re not safe to rest there for long. It’s transient. If you don’t move with it, you’ll be swallowed up by it.

You can be amidst the most mind-boggling chaos, noise and confusion on the street, only to walk up a hill for ten minutes and find a serene rose garden surrounded by an enchanted city view that’ll make you thank God, even if you don’t believe in one. This dichotomy is nothing new. It’s everywhere in Italy. In the landscapes and the people.

They are both saints and sinners.

Rome will kiss you as she kicks you.

As it is in Rome, so in life. We have to walk the gritty streets, eventually climbing out of them to gaze upon a lovely vista. And there’s good and bad both above and below.

Some people are born into easy, or seemingly easy, lives. They walk through the great big building that is life and doors open for them as if by magic. People smile at them. They go to school, they get good jobs, they find love. They make it all look so effortless.

Other people are born into lives that seem stacked against them from the start. They fight for breath on the day they’re born and they scrape their way through: banging on locked doors, clawing at walls, screaming and spitting and struggling for a chance to prove themselves. Prove themselves great in whatever form of great they dream of.

But whether we’re blessed or cursed or, like most humans, somewhere in between, nobody goes it alone.

Even the most successful, self-made people would not be so if it weren’t for the help of others. Be it the teacher that tells his student that she’s good at math, or a soccer coach who recognizes and nurtures a young athlete’s potential, or a manager who takes a chance on an inexperienced employee who has the drive, but nothing to show for it yet. No matter how hard we work and how ready we are – we succeed or fail based largely on the support of a few.

Seneca, that wise old Roman, said: “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” We learn, train, and get ready for battle, and when one comes, we go for it – con la forza (with force) – and hope for the best.

I find it hard to explain, but being surrounded by Rome and her vibrant Romans has lead me to think about personality and where it comes from. How everything we do and see shapes who we are and who we are becoming. Ultimately, it’s what we do and how we do it when the cards are stacked against us, when we’re staring into a loaded gun, when we’re trying to cross the street and cars are honking and nearly hitting us and people are yelling, when we’ve fallen down so many times we’re not sure it’s worth it to get back up again. It’s how we handle these moments, not those moments when the sun is shining and roses scent the air, that gives us integrity and character.

You can be the most beautiful person in the world. You can have the best job and the most money and the nicest clothes and the perfect family. You can have houses in France and Hawaii. You can know the difference between Chateau Rothschild and Domaine Leflaive – but if you don’t have much character, you don’t have much.

Lately, this city has been kicking my ass. Nearly a year of being away from friends and family, order, politeness and consistency, and living among the madness, rudeness, and illogical entertainment that is Rome has begun to transition from fun, new, and touristy to real, draining, and unstable.

I’m not giving up, on myself or on Rome, but when I saw Blackie, the little puppy following her owner with the undivided attention of a much older dog, it reminded me how much we – dogs, people, beings – need each other. Need to be loved, hugged, cared for. We need kindness – from strangers, from friends, from family, from lovers. We need to draw love out of wherever we are, and whomever we’re with. Italians go for this love thing with reckless abandon. They love their lifestyle, they love their food, they love their cities, regions, and country, they love themselves, and they love each other.

Someone once told me that if you love Rome, she will love you right back – and this is true.

It’s in the way the sun always makes her buildings twinkle as though they’ve been bathed in fairy dust. The way even her most ruined of ruins beam with haunting, ancient beauty. It’s in the way, right now, the soft sound of a classical piano music slices through the abrasive street noise—motorinos, booming voices of arguing Italians, sirens, the hum of water running from an outdoor fountain—like a silk scarf falling slowly over a sharp sword. Watching it happen was so beautiful and so peaceful, that you hardly care that your scarf is now on the floor in two pieces.

It’s in these moments that I don’t want to ever leave Italy. When I hear that piano played so delicately, so masterfully, producing sounds so cutting and so sweet that they leap into my stomach and writhe it until my eyes are watering and my heart is aching. I picture the pianist weeping, tear drops spilling onto the keys as his fingers bounce delicately over them – long and lithe. Like Rome, he makes me smile and cry at the same time. I can’t see where this beautiful sound is coming from, but I can feel it all around me, inside me. It’s always there. Just like Rome.

“We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” ~ Oscar Wilde

21st Century Bad Boys (& Girls)

Lets take a minute to talk about bad boys, shall we?

How do you define a bad boy? He might cheat on you, he might make false promises, he might break plans regularly with lame excuses or none at all, he probably dates multiple women at once because he can. He is often scared of relationships and so seeks out meaningless encounters with easy women. He is tall, dark and handsome – or not. He probably smells nice and likes leather -or not. He’s cocky. He’s charming. Or not. He could just be the most unassuming, innocent seeming man out there. Are you picking up on a problem here?

The 1950s image of James Dean straddling a motorcycle, leather jacket unzipped and cigarette hanging out of his mouth with a face that says “I don’t give a damn, but I’m a damn good kisser,” no longer defines the bad boy. Parts of him, sure, but the game has changed since then.

The bad boy has grown up, or, more accurately, mutated into various species of men. This poses a problem because most of the time you can’t even recognise the badness until you get involved with him, and then it’s almost always too late.

Since this is a blog about my life in Italy, I admit that I haven’t done much dating in Rome. I hate dating. I hate it even more in a foreign country where the rules are a little different and I am even more clueless than I am normally.

This isn’t to say that I wont date, I just don’t seek it out.

Anyway, in my own experiences with Italian men, and in hearing the dating stories of my Roman and American friends here, I have to say that the bad boy is very much alive and well in Italy. He smells good, he looks good, his shoes are nicer than yours and he will probably either cheat on you or cheat on his girlfriend with you.

Cheating is common here.

Not that cheating doesn’t happen everywhere, but it seems to be a bit more out in the open, and maybe even a bit more socially accepted, in Rome. When cheaters (and to be fair – they’re not only men) hit on their accomplices here, they often do so by alluding to the fact that they have a girlfriend right away. They try to justify the cheating by being honest about it upfront. It’s an interesting angle.

“Bella, yes I have a girlfriend, but she’s not here. Right now, it’s just you and me”

Can’t blame a guy for trying, right? They do it with such charm and conviction that it’s not as easy as you would think to scoff in their faces and walk away.

The Italian lover with his sexy accent, Roman god-like face and smooth moves is your stereotypical latin bad boy type – but as I said before, they’re not all so obvious. In fact my friend Chris – a smooth talking, guitar playing ladies man in his own right – recently divulged to me that almost every man is “bad” until they meet the girl they’re willing to be good for. And even then, he says, the good usually doesn’t last forever.

Now I’d like to believe that this is bullshit. Call me Disney, but if experience and Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Paulo Coelho novels have taught me anything it’s that love is a world unoccupied by reason or science or bad boy theories. Love just is. It’s a lawless battlefield – and we can’t really place blame when things go wrong in love, because we enter into it knowing that there are no guarantees.

I have been bad in the past. I’ve unintentionally hurt people in love and I don’t feel good about it – but I think most of us have been on both sides of heartbreak.

We couple up, we ride waves together, we fall off, we get back up, we paddle out alone and look for another set to come in. We all try to find that person we can ride with, and even when we find them, part of the thrill is knowing that the wave won’t last forever.

I don’t know why I just used a surfing metaphor there, but it gets the point across.

I started this post wanting to give bad boys a piece of my mind, but I ended up changing my mind along the way. No one’s really bad unless we let them be. We can only control how we react to what happens to us.

Sometimes when I walk around Rome, I could swear that I feel the mighty pulse of the ancient Eternal City protecting and feeding my soul – but I know enough to know that even all the power of Rome can’t protect my heart. Nothing can protect the heart. And when you start trying to protect it, you miss out on life. That’s the beauty and the calamity of love.

Having said that, there are some men and women that are just bad. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of getting involved with more than one of them in my years on the dating market. It’s not fun.

These types should really come with doctor’s warnings à la cigarette packages. “Warning: this man is emotionally unavailable, makes false promises and snores.” “Warning: this girl is manipulative, controlling and yells a lot.” Or something along those lines.

In the end, aren’t bad boys and girls just missing out on love? Maybe we should all feel sorry for them and their unused, little, shriveled up black hearts.

Eat, Pray – Basta!

Eat, Pray, Love. You think of it and see Julia Roberts sitting cutely on a bench in a gorgeous Roman piazza (Navona) eating gelato from a cup with a guilty look on her face like it’s a sin to eat gelato (from a cup, maybe).

The book was fine, a bit self-indulgent and narcissistic, and even though I didn’t make it past the Eat (Italy) section, I could see why people loved it. It was escapism meets a rich-white woman’s reality and it gave people hope, something to dream about – I get it. An author is entitled to write about whatever he or she wants to, and if I don’t like it, I don’t read it. No harm no foul. I’m also a fan of anything that gets people reading and thinking and discussing – because these are sadly dying practices in mainstream culture. So there’s me giving Eat, Pray, Love credit where it’s due.

However, a book like that is somehow turned into a cultural phenomenon, getting the Oprah crowd all hot and bothered, and then sparks a Julia Roberts led movie that is now being shoved into my face everywhere I turn – this is too much for me. Not every book turned movie bothers me – I have nothing against Harry Potter. There’s just something about Eat, Pray, Love that has been, well, eating at me, for lack of a better word.

Maybe it’s because of the comparisons I’ve gotten to the author, which go something like this: “oh I just read Eat, Pray, Love and it reminded me of you because you’re a writer too and you moved to Rome just like she does in the book!” Ya ok. Except I didn’t come to Rome to find myself. At 27, I had a pretty good idea of who I was. I moved to Rome because it’s something I had put on hold for years, and if I didn’t do it now it would have gone from dream to regret, and that’s not cool, baby.

The other similarity is, a couple of years ago, like Elizabeth Gilbert at the beginning of her novel, I did find myself lying on the floor of a bathroom crying in agony, but it was not because I had suddenly come to the realization that I was married to someone I didn’t want to be married to and there was surely more out there for me. No. I had actually just been locked out of my house by my now ex-boyfriend, who also took all of my money and my dog, so my friend’s bathroom floor was where I ended up after a long night of quelling the pain with too much alcohol. I digress…

Eat, Pray, Love, from what I gather, is a positive book and I agree with some of its message. I think everyone should strive to find what makes them happiest in life and try to carve out a path for themselves to follow that dream. It’s great that Liz Gilbert had the money and time to take a comfortable year-long soul-searching journey. What she failed to mention in the damn book was that finding yourself comes a bit quicker when you’re getting paid big bucks to write a book about it.

What I realized after moving to Italy was: you can run as far as you like, you can change your clothes, your friends, your hair, you can change your language, your job, your food, your church, whatever. You can change everything. At the end of the day, it’s still your own goddamn eyes you see when you look in the mirror. You’ve got to be ok with yourself, and find answers within yourself, wherever you are, because your location won’t make your problems go away.

Although I know it’s a true story, another thing that bothers me about Eat, Pray, Love is that she goes on this adventure to find herself as an independent single woman, and what!? look at that, she also finds the perfect man along the way.

I’m all for love. Really, I am. Love’s good stuff. But couldn’t the book have ended where she found herself? Because it just reinforces the damn stereotype that even if you’re on a soul-searching quest for self-discovery because you’ve spent your life going from one relationship to the next, your life still isn’t really complete until you’ve found the “perfect” man.

So go see Eat, Pray, Love, because I know you will anyway. Enjoy Julia Robert’s horn laugh and megawatt smile, enjoy the beauty of Roma, India and Bali. Let it lift your spirits or move you or whatever. Just please don’t tell me I’m missing out if I don’t see it. I’d rather try to live it in my own way. And you should too. Vai!

The Lady in the Sun

On the sidewalk between a bus stop and a bakery, a slice of sunlight escapes from the shadows of the buildings that surround it.

There she sits, illuminated.

The top half of her face strains upward and inward, emphasizing the deep lines on her forehead and in between her eyebrows. Her lips curl down as her large brown eyes look up at the people passing by.

Her shirt, probably once white, is yellowed from too much wear, too much perspiration, and not enough washing. Ring shaped stains have dyed the underarm part of her sleeves a grayish colour. Hard earned sweat stains.

In her left hand is a dish with a few coins in it, which she shakes at tourists as they pass her. With her right hand she holds up a brown tattered pant leg, exposing her mangled right limb. It looks as though it was crushed into a million pieces years ago and never fixed.

The leg is flat in some places and curves oddly in others. It’s scarred and its colour is deeper and more pronounced than the rest of her skin.

There she sits, exposing her wound – her cross to bear. Which has now become  her living. Her life.

This is a pretty common sight in Rome. Many people with maimed body parts beg for money in tourist-heavy areas of the city. It’s heartbreaking. It’s not something you get used to seeing.

I’ve been thinking about the lady in the slice of sun, and others like her, since I moved here. When I see them, I know I am in the presence of a bravery that I will likely never know for myself. I could never be that fearless. That honest. That naked.

What would it be like to expose your wounds to the world? The deepest, most painful parts of your being put on display for anyone to see. Is it demeaning? Is it cathartic? Is it liberating? Or is it simply a means to make a living?

While we don’t all have physical scars, nearly everybody carries some form of hurt on the inside, and most of us are petrified at the thought of anyone ever seeing it.

In Italy, they have a word that represents the facade, the image, the pretty faces we show the world, and the ugliness we hide from it – la figura.

The lady in the sun, displaying her pain in broad daylight, has surrendered her ego and her “figura,” but has retained her pride despite the hoards of people gawking at her daily. This is a nearly unfathomable vocation for most people.

Humans are fragile creatures. We come unglued easily. We hide our perceived physical unattractiveness with makeup, with workout regimes, with plastic surgery, with clothes. We also hide our emotional pain from ourselves and from those closest to us. Not because we don’t love them, but because we are afraid that if we share too much and don’t keep up this “bella figura,” we might expose that we are breakable. We might get hurt.

Ironically, this act of hiding pain away often turns the pain into frustration, sadness and hate. Eventually we become shadows of the people we were, or move farther and farther away from what we wanted to be.

The lady in the sun makes me want to cry, but she doesn’t need my tears. She’s braver than I’ll ever be.

I don’t stand on street corners saying: “Don’t look away – look at my wound. Look good and hard. It’s all mine, and now it’s yours too.”

But she does. With the grace of a ballerina and the strength of the ocean.

Maybe when someone surrenders to their own fragility, they become unbreakable.

Pavarotti’s Protégé

Italian opera is an emotion unto itself.  Sad tales of love, heartbreak and sorrow sung with over-the-top falsettos and booming baritones. It combines the purest form of musical talent with painstaking training and minutely intricate details, and here lies the duality of the opera, and of Italian culture. Part free-flowing, beautiful and romantic, part laborious, tedious and almost unattainable.

“Opera” means work in Italian, and to work for the sake creating beautiful art is the legacy of many of the greatest artists and musicians from this country.

In Rome, you can go to the Opera, but it’ll set you back 100 Euros or more. Alternatively, to get an opera fix, stroll through the various piazzas by night and you’ll usually find at least one tenor belting out an aria. If you’re in the ancient city centre,  open your window and you’ll probably hear random men burst into song as they stroll slowly down the cobblestone streets. Another option is to wait until late at night and listen to the drunks as they stumble out of the bars singing their best rendition of O Sole Mio to the sleepy streets of Rome.

Rome, with its many gorgeous sculptures, romantic light, and expressive people, is the kind of city that makes people want to sing. This is Italy, after all. If you feel like singing – you sing!

A few weeks ago, I was walking by the Pantheon by night and came across a man singing a beautiful opera in the middle of the Piazza della Rotonda. A large crowd had gathered around him, mesmerized. The trained but potent emotion in his voice was the kind that leapt right out of his mouth and into your stomach, clenching it. It was razor-like. Delicate, but like a razor, it still draws blood when it cuts you.

Hearing his song made me think of sad things – heartache, losing people you love, disappointment. But the longer I listened, the more I could feel the darkest, coldest places within myself begin to thaw. Even though I wasn’t the one singing, I began to feel exposed, unglued. I felt that if I listened for long enough, this song might heal my wounds, mend my heart, help me start anew.

That’s the power of beautiful music – it speaks directly to the soul.

I watched Piazza Tenor for a few minutes, because any longer than that and the tears would have started to flow, and I continued on my walk to Piazza Navona. Navona a tourist hotspot, but it’s spectacular. I never get sick of seeing it anytime during the day or night.

Walking through Piazza Navona is like a trip to an enchanted, peculiar circus where…

…artists sell beautiful paintings of Rome and all of her many attractions,

…sketchers will draw your exact likeness, or a caricature of it, in under 10 minutes,

…performers paint themselves and dress up as statues and hold the same pose for hours on end as giddy tourists marvel over them and take pictures,

…foreign men sell light up toys that can be thrown into the air and caught with a spiral stick-like device,

…gypsies with folding tables sit patiently in front of cardboard signs that read “Italiano, English, German, Spagnolo, Portugese,” waiting to tell your fortune,

…guitar players jam, singers sing, drumming circles pound out beats that make you want to shake your hips, accordion players stroll slowly up and down the street, serenading the crowd with romantic classics.

And then, there’s Pavarotti’s Protégé.

Armed with a CD player, a little speaker and a microphone, Pavarotti’s Protégé is an old man whose lust for life shines dimly through his hazy eyes.

He’s so old that he seems to be shrinking right in front of you. His clothes are too big for his frail body. His shoes too large for his small feet.

From his loud-speaker comes a familiar voice: the booming tenor of the one and only Pavarotti. It’s boisterous, loud and beautiful.

The old man moves his mouth to lip synch along to the song, but he can’t keep time. In fact, he doesn’t seem to actually know the words.

His right hand waltzes along to the music, swaying back and forth in the air, and his left hand holds his microphone limply, as though it’s a ball and chain he’s tired of carrying.

Pictures of Pavarotti are posted up on his rolling bag, which stands beside him. A little wicker basket sits in front of his feet, collecting more ashes from passerby’s cigarettes than coins.

And there he stands.

A small old man pretending to sing a dead man’s masterpieces.

He is a spectacle for tourists to gawk at, but he doesn’t seem to care.

The opera he lip synchs along to is healing the ache inside of him.

The Train Game

If taking the buses in Rome is like trip to the circus, then the trains should be compared to a crazy day at the zoo. Especially Termini. Mamma mia. Thousands of people following the going-every-which-way arrows to get to their trains. Then lining up like cattle to be herded onto them. I don’t mind the crowds as much as I mind the freaky thought of being so far underground. The air is different down there.

I prefer the A Line to the B Line in terms of cleanliness. A Line trains are newer, seem to run more on-time, have better seats and handrails and are almost sterile looking. The B Line trains, however, are dimly lit, full of graffiti, and let out extra loud, ear-piercing screeches when they stop. The charming details of big city grit. Love it or hate it, it’s there.

Today, on the A Line, I’m shocked that this train is so orderly looking. It almost gave the illusion of an organized city transit system. But, no matter how well-kept or modern the train, when it’s packed full of people, it’s not fun. On those days when you feel like you’re gong to fall out of the train because you’re squished up against the door and you’re getting punched in the face by the backpack of the man in front of you and coughed on by the sick women beside you, and you can’t do anything but hold your breath and try not to breathe until the germs magically dissipate and it’s safe again (count to 30 with eyes closed) – on those days, trains are not my happy place.

But today, the train isn’t nearly that busy. Sitting in the seats that line both sides of the train are mostly locals. Romans. And standing in front of them – a group of tourists. Seats are a prized commodity because standing requires you to delicately balance your foot placement and hold onto a pole, a handrail, or the person next to you for dear life when the train takes off.

The tourists in front of me are in pairs. About four boy/girl couples excitedly chatting away in a foreign language. I always get excited when I see happy tourists. I feel like saying: “Hello! I’m so glad you’re enjoying Rome! It’s great isn’t it?” But that would be weird, so instead I just smile to myself.

The train takes off with a jolt. I regain my balance by holding onto the bar in front of me, but as I look up, I see the  four couples toppling over, one by one, like dominoes. It’s the sort of scene where you laugh a little and don’t feel too bad about laughing because the people who are falling are laughing too. Actually, they aren’t just laughing – they are in hysterics. Like this falling down on the train business is the funniest thing that has ever happened. They get up and exchange giggles with each other and start chatting excitedly again. And posing for and taking pictures (peace signs and bunny ears included).

An older, balding man in a white shirt  walks down the aisle playing an old Italian folk song on an accordion, and woman follows closely behind him collecting money. As they come through, the group of  tourists part like the red sea to let them pass. One of them gives the musician’s lady a coin, and she thanks him. Another takes her picture.

Then, the train begins to slow down, preparing to stop. Instead of holding onto the handrails, which are above and beside them, the group of tourists just stand there, as if they don’t know what’s coming. As thought gravity is lost on them. As the train stops, one girl crashes into another like a bowling pin, and again they’re down for the count. Their respective boyfriends try to help them up, but with the train not yet at a complete standstill, they wobble and topple over as well. The four of them sit on the floor of the train, laughing.

Two of the male tourists that are still standing stabilize themselves as the train stops by quickly jumping with their knees bent and feet spread wide apart, and their arms stretched out to the sides – surfing the subway.

As you can probably guess, when the train takes off again, it’s the same scene. These tourists, refusing to hold onto the hand rails, try in vain to brace themselves against the forces of gravity with no luck. It’s actually starting to look like fun and a part of me wants to let go and join them.

And then I look at the Italians that surround us. Not impressed. More than not impressed, I think they are thoroughly baffled by what is going on. One man has been frowning at the scene since it started, and as it continues, his open mouth curls into a scowl. I’m kind of surprised no one else is laughing. Come on people!

I do sympathize with the Romans, though. They live in a city that attracts hoards of tourists all year round, and in the spring and summer months, they have to deal with the masses. With the masses come: the rude people, the people who litter, the people who complain that the sun is too hot, or that he cobblestone roads are hard to walk on, or that the Colosseum is too big or the piazzas are too busy, or that the pizzas are to thin (GASP!). There are those who will only eat the pasta dishes that they have seen on the menu at the Spaghetti Factory, and there are those who pronounce every single Italian word they say wrong, seemingly, if not completely, on purpose.

There are plenty of those tourists. I’ve only been in Rome for a few months, and they bug me too. However, most tourists are lovely, interesting people who just want to enjoy one of the world’s greatest cities. I guess the Romans have become wary of tourists, because there are so many, and they take over the city.

But I digress. These four couples on the train are not rude, or littering, or bastardizing the language, or complaining – they’re just having fun by falling, again and again. I still don’t know if they are playing some sort of bizarre game, or having a competition to see who can withstand the forces of Roman train gravity, or if they are all just germaphobes who didn’t want to touch the poles.

They get off at the next stop, chatting happily and just as smiley as when they first got on. Cameras around necks, a few of them with marked up legs from falling on the train floor, all ready to take on Rome.

Una Sigaretta? Un bacio?

If the heavenly sun lights Rome from above during the day, then maybe it’s the fires of hell that illuminate it from below by night. The daylight gives color to the trees, the buildings, the fountains and the beautiful people, but the night’s glow brings out something else entirely. Nighttime is when everything other gets to shine.

At night, the Roman buses take on a different feel too. Bombing down a blackened street, a bus can look like a possessed night rider on a quest to take out pedestrians and steal their souls. As is the case with the buses during the day, maybe they come on time, maybe they don’t. Maybe three with the same route number show up within two minutes of each other, and maybe you’re waiting for two hours in the rain. It’s unpredictable. Disorderly. But Italians seem to thrive on chaos. Anything too predictable would become mundane. Boredom would eat them up. And there would be less to complain about.

Standing at a bus stop one night, waiting in vain, I hear voices to my left. An older looking man, maybe in his mid sixties, but weathered and dirty, is talking to himself. More than talking, he’s having a full-on argument complete with expressive hand gestures and rapidly rising and falling voice inflections. He’s definitely making his point.

People stare at him as they walk by. Fellow bus-waiters sit on opposite benches to avoid being near him. I take note of him, but quickly go back to glancing down the street for my bus. It’s raining and I forgot my umbrella. I look down to study the puddles on the ground and to watch as my cute leather shoes get ruined from the wetness.

“Una sigaretta?”

I look up. There stands the man who was conversing with himself a few minutes prior. His tired whiskey colored eyes are fixed on mine, and he bounces his weight from one foot the other like he’s standing on hot sand.

“No, mi dispiace.” (No, sorry)

“Sei italiana?” (are you italian?)

Wanting to avoid a conversation about being Italian, but Canadian, hence my poor language skills, I say “no.”

“Sei spangola?” (are you spanish?)

“No, sono Canadese.”

“Oh Canadese! Tom Jones!! Cigarette?”

I shake my head “no”.

He nods.

“Un bacio?” (A kiss?)

I begin to laugh, and as I do so, he puckers his lips and closes his eyes, waiting.

“Um, no.”

He laughs madly, smacking his hands to his knees, before walking back to the bench to resume his argument.